Lithium-ion battery recycling has become more cost-effective thanks to groundbreaking research.

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How do we make battery recycling cost effective? Scientists at the ReCell Center have taken another step towards that goal.

Lithium-ion batteries are the engines of our technological present and future. They power portable electronics, such as smartphones and laptops and electric vehicles (EVs), which are growing in popularity. But the increasing use of lithium-ion batteries, especially in automobiles, has outpaced the technology to recycle them. Now, scientists at the ReCell Center — the nation’s first advanced battery recycling research and development center, headquartered at the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory — have made a pivotal discovery that removes one of the biggest hurdles standing in the way of making recycling lithium-ion batteries economically viable.

The recycling processes being used today enable the recovery of metals in forms that are of low value to battery manufacturers. An enormous problem looms on the horizon: In less than a decade, researchers project that two million tons of end-of-life lithium-ion batteries from EVs will be retired each year. The number of end-of-life EV batteries is currently low, but it’s about to rise substantially as older model vehicles reach the end of their useful life — and the current recycling infrastructure is not ready for the influx.

“If the battery industry is going to buy recycled cathode material to reuse in new batteries, they are not going to sacrifice purity.” — Jessica Durham, materials scientist at Argonne and co-author of the study

Researchers at Michigan Technological University (MTU), part of the ReCell team, have developed an innovative process for separating the valuable materials that make up the cathode, a battery’s positively charged electrode.

Scientists in the Materials Engineering Research Facility at Argonne are scaling up MTU’s innovative separation process, paving the way for the large-scale recycling of EV batteries. Because the cathode materials of EV batteries vary depending on the automaker and the production year, a recycler must take a mixture of lithium metal oxides — lithium cobalt oxide, lithium nickel manganese cobalt oxide, lithium nickel cobalt aluminum oxide, lithium iron phosphate, etc. — and separate out each in order for those materials to be reused. That once impossible task suddenly seems feasible.

In a new paper published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Energy Technology, MTU and ReCell researchers detail their discovery: a method of separating individual cathode materials using a new twist on an old process called froth flotation.

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